on transcultural adoption

The following is a guest post by blogger, Nikki. Nikki is a transracial adoptee, born in the U.S. to Korean immigrant parents and adopted by white parents. She is a contributor to Somebody’s Child, a book of essays about adoption. This post was originally posted at A Small Song. Nikki also blogs at Irene’s Daughters. The article below is in response to an NPR review of the new film, “Somewhere Between,” a documentary following four teenaged girls adopted from China and now living in the United States. Many things in Nikki’s article deeply resonated with me, and I wanted to share it with all of you in hopes that it will provide some insight from the perspective of adoptees’.

Cross-posted at Irene’s Daughters and Are Women Human?

Sometimes I kind of find myself wishing that adoptive parents would stop writing about adoption. Particularly if the subject is transracial adoption.

I realize that probably sounds a bit harsh. It’s not that an adoptive parent cannot have plenty of good, worthwhile things to say about adoption. But there is SO MUCH of THIS out there. And this, an NPR review of a new documentary about adopted Chinese-born teens, Somewhere Between:

…all four girls are thoughtful, moving and imaginative on the subject of their split identities. Haley thinks of herself as a “banana,” yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Describing herself as “stuck between two countries,” Fang laments that she’s always trying to compensate for the fact that she was abandoned because she’s a girl.

Watching the tears roll down Fang’s otherwise cheerful face, I wondered whether she’d be this sad if she wasn’t facing a camera. On the plus side, Somewhere Between is refreshingly free of the cloying, one-size-fits-all dogma that sometimes bedevils the adoption community. (I parted company with my chosen adoption listserv when I got tired of hearing about “the holes in all our daughters’ hearts.”)

Inevitably, though, the film makes it seem that these girls’ lives are dominated by worry about who they are and whether they’ll be emotionally crippled by conflicting allegiances. Adopted or not, few of us develop our identities in the abstract — least of all today’s adolescents, who try out their ever-shifting multiple selves with their friends in every social medium, and are far more nonchalant about racial difference, let alone adoption, than we boomers can ever be.

Oh, yes, because being “nonchalant about racial difference” should be the gold standard to which we all aspire. And why is Fang so sad? It’s awfully telling that journalist/adoptive mom Emma Taylor confesses she can’t bring herself to stay on her adoption listserv because they talk too much about adoption loss and grief and all that downer stuff.

Notice how, in this “review” of a documentary featuring the voices of adopted teenaged women of color, Taylor just can’t help but make the whole thing about her own feelings and opinions? It’s not that I think every adoption-related story needs to be written by an adopted individual or birthparent. I know some wonderful adoptive parents, and their perspectives are important, too. But the traditional adoption narrative in this country is so completely dominated by adoptive parents as a group — THEIR experiences, THEIR emotions, what THEY believe to be “the truth” about their children’s adoptions. And that is especially problematic when you have white people clearly looking to take the easy way out and not think about race too hard. Could NPR not have found, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese adult adoptee to write about this film? There are a ton of them out there. I’m sure they’ve got opinions.

Emma Taylor, meanwhile, sees the film — and the young women featured in it — through the filter of her own form of white adoptive-parent magical thinking, and makes it all about her:

My Chinese teen was bat mitzvahed last year; she celebrates the Jewish, Chinese and any other New Year that comes with a party. On Facebook, she brands herself as “Jew Crew,” “Asian, so deal with it” and a Yankee Brit, among others. Accustomed to a polyglot world, she takes it mostly in stride.

Her only visible adoption crisis came when she was about 8, just after we’d watched the excellent movie Stuart Little, about a mouse adopted into a loving family who nonetheless has an “empty space” in his heart. A couple of hours later, my ordinarily sunny, unflappable child burst into tears and asked piteously why her mommy had let her go.

Caught off guard, I opted for honesty and told her it made absolutely no sense to me, and who wouldn’t want to be the mother of a great kid like her? After a moment, she asked for her drawing materials and drew three female figures with Chinese features (“You, me, and my other Mommy”), then said firmly, “Okay, let’s play something else.”

First of all, why was she “caught off guard” when her child brought this up? Why hadn’t they discussed it before? Why hadn’t they been discussing it all along?  I can’t even tell you how much it bothers me that Taylor is so obviously relieved and almost triumphant about the fact that she and her daughter have only had the one conversation about abandonment in her entire thirteen years. One conversation? ONE? Oh, good then, I guess you’re off the hook!

Often, adopted children talk about issues only if they feel safe doing so. Generally, adopted kids learn at a young age which adoption-related topics are “safe” in their adoptive families, and which are not. It is up to parents to create an environment in which everything is on the table. Adoptive parents can’t cringe and fluster or express zero empathy with placing birthparents or spout platitudes about how it all worked out great anyway, so there’s no reason to ever feel less than 100% positive about your adoption, honey. Adopted children need more than that. Because, at some time or another, and probably throughout their lives, they will feel more than that. Adoptive parents, like all parents, need to be able to admit when they aren’t enough.

I’m a parent, and I know how difficult it is to face the fact that you can’t meet your child’s every need every moment of the day. But I think it’s crucial to look ourselves squarely in the mirror, and really look at our children too, and see areas in which we may be ill-equipped or even totally helpless to fix a problem or answer a question or meet a deep-seated yearning. We can try, but it might not be enough. We can’t pretend to be their end-all and be-all, the answer to all their questions, the fulfillment of all their hopes, because their lives are not about us or filling some hole in our lives. At some point, they will need something we can’t provide. They might need to look elsewhere for it, and that doesn’t mean their bonds with us are any less important or strong.

I feel this point is often lost on adoptive parents, especially those who have waited a long time to become parents. They want so much to feel like the “real parents” and meet all comers, but there are things some adopted children face — such as not knowing anything about their family history; or being Asian but feeling/being treated as white — that adoptive parents cannot fix. And instead of facing that fact straight on and asking what they can do to walk alongside their children, even if they can’t take away a particular burden, they instead deny that it exists (italics are mine).

Taylor ends her “review” by expressing gratitude for the fact that her daughter is “lucky enough to live in a hybrid world,” and will, like the girls in the film, find a way “to make a virtue out of being somewhere between.” Never mind what her daughter might feel in the future, when she’s not eight or thirteen. Never mind if she doesn’t think of being “somewhere between” as a “virtue” all the time. She’ll just have to figure it out for herself. Her mother certainly considers the matter closed.

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